Reverend Starts Transgender Church
In the recipe for a church, one needs a public space, a liturgy, a congregation and a little bit of audience participation.
“Well, I can say that we’ll try to get everyone to sing together,” laughed Rev. Anya Johnston. “I won’t be leading that part, but we’ll be doing that, and we’ll be pulling in some of the traditional elements that people expect in a house of worship of almost any kind.”
Although she doesn’t want to get too caught up in hierarchy, Johnston is officially the founding minister of a brand-new church, specifically aimed at serving members of the transgender community. It’s called: TransFormations: Faith in Change.
“We start our kickoff service at Affirmations,” Johnston said. “I would say in the big picture it would be a separate thing, but the important thing initially is to have a place together, and if that continues to be Affirmations, that’s fine.”
Johnston’s decision to branch off and create a new denomination, one which has not been given a full title yet, was not taken lightly. In an official FAQ description, she talked about the reasoning for the congregation’s current name:
“We are a spiritual community that gives transgender people and their allies a sense of purpose, hope and full humanity, beginning with the recognition that gender is a creative manifestation of the divine,” Johnston wrote.
She said that the church has no official religious background, noting that many of the targeted members will be “‘refugees’ from other faiths and denominations, the majority, though, have decided to be part of a religion that overlaps with the core principals of many religions.”
Her approach is similar to that of other LGBTQ-friendly congregations, but purposely, she is making sure to intermingle many different traditions.
“My ideal is this multi-faith environment, which is what a healthy Unitarian Universalist environment is like, where there are Buddhists and Hindus and Jews and Christians and former Catholics and atheists and agnostics all together, because it isn’t that agreement that brings us together,” She said. “What we hold in common is this experience of living a little bit out of step with what the dominant culture is.”
And Johnston is unafraid to tackle a challenge that big. Ordained to be a Unitarian Universalist 18 years ago, she gave it her all in divinity school; her program trained her to operate in a multi-faith environment, and her degree required 90 credits to graduate. Johnston walked away from Starr King School for the Ministry with 145. Her tenacity, has also made her resilient. In her long career, she has been no stranger to abuse. After coming out as transgender in 2007, her Detroit appointment as a temporary minister became unbearable.
“I found a lot of people quite accepting, and then there were the others who started to make things really difficult. Because I was serving as their consulting senior minister, the treasurer called me ‘it’ instead of having a pronoun for me. That’s kind of what we might call ‘ouch moments,'” Johnston said. “So, when I finished my time there, I did a one-year job in Miami, Florida, and once again, I had one person who was just so hateful and she used to call me ‘that creature.'”
After that, Johnston decided to take an extended break from ministry for a few years, but she couldn’t keep away for long. Something always kept drawing her back to her faith, something that she could only relate back to her childhood.
“I was raised Catholic and I would sit in church as a little kid, and I knew that something was happening that they weren’t talking about. It was like there was a magic show going on, but everybody was ignoring the magic part,” Johnston said.
That sense of wonder brought her to Ohio, where she told her story to another church, and was reappointed, but not for long. A small group within the congregation essentially forced Johnston out of her job.
“The day after that happened that I got the note from Rachel (Crandall-Crocker), which made me laugh,” she said.
Crandall-Crocker is a local transgender activist and the founder of the annual Transgender Day of Visibility, and a member of the church’s board. She gave Johnston the push she needed to start something on her own. Johnston said she has nothing against other LGBT congregations, but recognition is one of the main reasons she chose to branch out.
“When I think of LGBT-centered churches, I think of Metropolitan Community Church. My experience is that the ‘T’ has always been the small-letter ‘T’ with large ‘Ls’ and ‘Gs,’ and that’s better than a lot of places,” Johnston said. “So, it’s a place where I’m comfortable in terms of gender-identity, but not in terms of, typically, theology. The theory is, that much like the people I’ve been serving my whole career, there are people who feel wounded by their church’s history.”
But that doesn’t mean that people who aren’t transgender aren’t able to attend, simply that the services will focus on a specific audience. For the first gathering, the theme will be expectations.
“On the one hand, that’s expectations about what will this be like, because none of us have been in this moment before, and also all the expectations around family and loss issues around holidays,” Johnston said. “That could be framed as something. We have expectations and they’re often not realistic or positive, so the focus will be on finding hope and optimism amongst that, as well answering the unasked questions of, ‘What is a trans church?’ I’m looking forward to seeing who shows up, and if I’m nervous, it’s really that no one will show up. But that isn’t even nerves, that’s just an unknown.”